Clark V. Fox (aka Michael Clark), the “Godfather of modern underground art,” started making art full time in Houston, Texas at age 5 and has never slowed down since. “Art chose me: I’m an American Indian, and Indians make stuff. My father carved. My mother painted. when I was five, I’d go up and down the street trying to sell my small paintings. By high school, I was full-scale artist selling my pieces at the shopping malls.”
Clark is Native American, of Cherokee and Powhatan descent, and likes to say that he is a hostile Indian – because he is “off the reservation.”
Clark studied with Japanese art master Unichi Hiratsuka (1895-1997) at the Japan-American Society of Washington DC 1964-1965. He studied fine art and took a figure drawing class with the painter Lennart Anderson (American, 1928-) at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn 1965-1966, and painted on projects with the color field painters Gene Davis (American, 1920-1985) and Thomas Downing (American, 1928- 1985).
Clark received his Bachelors of Fine Art (BFA) from the Corcoran College of Art and Design where he studied from 1966-1968. He subsequently taught there from 1968-1970. “Much of my work is political and socialistic but incorporates classical art traditions of still life color, and portraiture. In the 60’s, my still life studies of oranges were done as a meditation on form and color, but they were also my tributes to the Mexican migrant workers making less than $1.00 a day selling oranges on the highway.”
Any idea of organized education was abandoned to work against the war in Vietnam. He copied portrait paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He considers himself largely self taught. Eventually, in 1992, he founded and directed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Washington DC from 1992-2006.
“Part of the reason I came to Washington was because it is the most important city in the world; from Washington we can and have destroyed nations. Part of my art thing was to try to humanize people. Unfortunately, they’re not fanning the flames of creativity in Washington. There are tons of dough here but very little interest in art.”
Clark is famous for retaking the icons of our consumer culture and pulling back the curtain on some unsavory truths. With unflagging dedication, Fox has ritually painted one JFK portrait every year since Kennedy’s assassination and will continue to do so until the government offers a reasonable explanation of the death.
45 JFK Paintings and Portrait of Lori Ann Piestewa
Lori Ann Piestewa (above) was the first Native American woman in history to die in combat while serving with the U.S. military and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Mr. Peanut – the universal symbol of Planter’s Peanuts – is another staple of Clark’s revolt against capitalist culture. The top-hat, the cane, the monocle, and the white gloves are all symbols of “big business.” And it’s this image that Clark has successfully subverted.
So who is Mr. Peanut?
“Mr. Peanut has an agenda,” he confides. “It’s sort of like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. That was supposed to be Benjamin Disraeli.”
“Mr. Peanut represents world capitalism, the branded elements of the capitalist system. The job of the artist, or at least my job, is to wake people up, just in case they are sleepwalking through life,” says Clark.
“I see myself as a history painter through the use of icons. American heroes were people that I could look up to. I painted these heroes for many years. Then as my interest grew, I read more and more books to try to get into their heads and make history and these figures more alive when I painted them. I’ve lectured to groups like the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution and told them the truth. I discovered that they all seem to have more than a little blood on their hands. Well… nobody’s perfect are they?”
One famous review of Clark’s “Peanut Gallery” goes as follows:
Mr. Peanut lives better than most of us. He has his top hat, cane and white gloves. His pants are conspicuously absent. It’s understandable. I guess he doesn’t feel the need to wear them while tons of people around the world eat his nuts. It’s hard to say just how a peanut man from 1916 has achieved such fame. The happy – go – lucky peanut has served his tenure with pride, making us all glad to enjoy an occasional snack. But there’s more to this story. Mr. Peanut has never been exposed as the guilt – ridden capitalist he is. Well at least not until now.
Here’s how Clark describes another famous work titled 200 NAFTA Oranges:
The orange piece happened in a funny way. The NAFTA treaty was negotiated in 1992 and came into force on January 1, 1994. Right after that I began painting the NAFTA Orange paintings. I never took pictures of them individually and one day, I had 8 orange paintings and only one shot in my camera left. I stuck them all together and when the film came back, bingo! I realized how powerful they all looked together! The orange that I modeled them after was bought from a Mexican national standing next to the highway — 2 bucks for a big bag of oranges. In the Safeway, one orange cost 89 cents!? Wow! This is the NAFTA agreement? A real rip off for the poor, green cardless worker on the side of the freeway. Who knows how little they made a day doing such a crummy job?
So the NAFTA Orange installation was my tribute to the working class peoples of Mexico. In the state of Oaxaca I had watched skilled artists painting barefoot in studios with dirt floors for very little money. After NAFTA came into effect, they had to come to the USA to make money to keep from starving! The author of the NAFTA agreement, Duaine Priestley actually came to my gallery in May of 1998. The Washington Post had given the piece a rave review: The Juicy Tale of 110 NAFTA Oranges by Paul Richard, yet not one mention of the sociopolitical implications of the work. Mr. Priestley took photographs of me in front of the oranges. I didn’t tell him what I thought about the treaty! I mentioned immigration problems. Today there are no Mexican workers selling oranges next to the freeways in L.A. County.
Clark sees parallels with the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). “They want everyone to be slaves,” he says. “And guess what, there is no trickle down, or trickle through. We live in an age of lobbyists. Our politicians are puppets, sellouts. ”
Clark Fox: The "Godfather of modern underground art"
Clark’s 38 Lincoln Paintings (2006-2008) are an homage not to the Civil War President but to the 38 Dakota tribes people hanged in a mass execution under Lincoln’s orders at the end of the 1862 Dakota Wars. “Lincoln is not what I thought he was, especially when I was a kid,” says Clark.
38 Lincoln Paintings (detail)
Clark doesn’t spare George Washington either:
“Caunotaucarius,” is the Native American epithet for the president meaning “Town Taker.”
The struggle goes on. A pensive Clark talks about his work: “I lived in modern art history. I argued about art with Julian Schnable. I painted for Gene Davis and Tom Downing. I hung out with Rivers, Rauschenberg, and Warhol…Now I’m up in my years. The scene today is totally different. But most people who will go for my work aren’t even been born yet… My church is art; it’s a sacred trust.”
This article is part of a series based on Corpocracy, a group show now at the Station Museum, Houston, Texas.